On lower Kula Road in Maui, at the western base of Haleakalā, sits the Holy Ghost Catholic Church: a perfectly octagonal postcard built by Azorean sugarcane workers more than one hundred years ago. I’m visiting the island with family, and surrounding the gilded tabernacles and perfectly kempt carpets that remind me so much of my Catholic childhood, there are massive, painted, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross, a series of depictions of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion.
From a distance—and there’s nothing but distance on an island in the middle of the Pacific—these appear to be the same as my childhood Via Crucis. But looking closer, my friend, Mary, notices the text included in these reliefs are all in Portuguese. Sure enough, hanging in one of eight equal corners, is Station eight: Jesus encontra as mulheres de Jerusalém: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. In it, a robed Jesus holds out his hand towards a group of women.
In Analicia Sotelo’s Jake Adam York Prize-winning first collection, Virgin, selected by Ross Gay for Milkweed Editions, I’m reminded that religion, like mythology, is born slowly, cobbled together from whatever means or experiences are available to us. Sotelo’s book, unlike Holy Ghost Church, isn’t quite octagonal. Instead, it has seven sections: its own week-towards-genesis, perhaps, or collection of seven deadly sins, set in the speaker’s skin like a scar-turned-secant line.
Sotelo begins her collection with such specific and unique nouns, we can’t help but imbue them with importance. In “Do You Speak Virgin?” we see a veil as “fried tongue and chicken wire”; stars “are the arachnid eyes / of my mother-in-law”; a priest’s collar is “like a giant tooth / in the midnight sky.” These nouns are holy things, or spells, or (we come to realize) at least, things that we pin to the irreducible whole, votive candles lit so slowly we almost forget the statuary they come to illuminate.
The gift of this collection is the poet’s attention to structure. Every poem in each of the sections works towards a kind of confession or reconciliation (also one of the seven sacraments in Catholic faith), all while keeping us firmly in the complications of a contemporary, female-identifying speaker. In Taste, the first of these sections, we see the language (and titles) of food and drink merge with the experience of becoming a sexual being: a tongue that just begins to touch what’s offered.
In these poems, there’s so much given and then withdrawn, like admission of sin at Confession—unbearably spoken out loud⎯only to be silenced with penance. In the poem “Summer Barbeque with Two Men,” the speaker says, about an old crush grilling food:
these beautiful peaches. He offers some⎯
I’m embarrassed. I try not
to touch his hand.
I try to touch his hand. On the porch […]
A kind of binary, or duality, permeates much of the collection’s movement towards something, then its subsequent movement away from that same thing; an ocean wave and a wave of the hand. Sotelo’s linebreaks create an intimacy, both for the characters and voices that populate the pieces, and the language that animates those moments. This idea of being so close and yet so far away is more than just suggested in the content: it’s made manifest in the craft of the poems themselves.
For example, in “Trauma with a Second Chance at Humiliation,” Sotelo writes:
There’s always going to be someone
willing to give a spoonful
of their attention. The trick
is to recognize the conversation
will run out, run into
I’m sure we’ll run into each other sometime.
There’s so much control displayed in these three couplets, and so much made clear regarding the binary conditions of sex and love: that there’s always going to be someone; the connections of willing and will, both of which begin their own lines; attention as trick, and attention placed before the inevitable recognition; running out, or running in[to]; and either with or—of course—without.
Virgin is filled with this sort of language: dense in its possible connotations, but without the kind of density which would roil the pace and possibilities gleaned by a dutiful reader. For example, while reading Sotelo’s poem “South Texas Persephone,” which ends with the lines, “Now I have three heads: one / for speech, one for sex, // and one for second guessing.” Here, I can’t help but think ofCarl Phillips’s brilliant poem, “A Great Noise,” in which the ever-dutiful seraphim, in the presence of God,
stand naked, ever-burning,
six-winged: two to fly with,
in back; two at the face to withstand
the impossible winds that
and a third pair ⎯ for modesty
for the covering
Sotelo builds her own angels out of the dutiful women that fill her work, all “performing [their] bruises.” There’s an admission here, a letting in, where the voices and choices of women can breathe in a space not offered in some conservative world, or a Catholic one, or really any current world, if we’re honest about it. These speaker(s) don’t need to offer us explanation. All that matters is that, as Sotelo writes, “It does matter. / I don’t have to tell you why.” An ars poetica of sorts for the poem, but also an ars poetica for the feeling, for the future that might be without a yes, but or a well, actually.
One of the strongest aspects of this collection is its honesty in the face of complicated perceptions. For example, here is an early section of her long poem “Father Fragments (or, Yellow Ochre)”:
He smelled of clay and soft eraser,
and I did not know him, but I loved him
like I loved my heartbeat,
that original invisible companion.
Compare this with a subsequent section, working in conjunction, and in opposition, at the same time:
Which one is better? he says.
I choose the nineteenth-century bust
with the kind eyes, hair curling
like a necklace at the nape,
because I think she is delicate like me,
but I do not wish to say it.
That one is conventional, he says.
He explains conventional,
how it takes the lines
of our original beauty and erases it.
The familial relationship that Sotelo works through in this poem becomes complicated. Explaining beauty might, in fact, erase a kind of beauty. But it also might define that thing for us at the same time. Perhaps we lose all these other possibilities in moments like this; that there’s always something erased in how we look at what little we can see.
Back inside Holy Ghost Catholic Church, in front of the eighth Station again, I can’t help but think of Virgin as I look the figure of Jesus, right hand stretched out, as if he’s holding these women back. It’s a blessing, yes, but it’s also a movement away. But perhaps, in the same way Analicia Sotelo considers the binary and the connected, there’s also a movement towards. Maybe it’s all just the opposite of what I remember from my middle school Masses: it’s not He who blesses them, but them, with their willingness to be there, in that moment, who blesses Him.